To Resolve or Not to Resolve

I had the idea to write about goals before I realized how close we are to New Year’s, aka Resolution-Making Time. Really, I did. Originally, I just wanted to share some thoughts about setting goals, and monitoring progress on a goal. But I suppose it’s propitious to link it in with this time of year, as it is on many people’s minds. As a therapist and conversationalist, I’ve heard numerous opinions expressed about “New Year’s Resolutions,” many of them strong…and many of them startlingly negative.

First I should warn you that I’ve always been a goal-setter. Even as a young girl, I made New Year’s Resolutions. Goals excite me. Ha! I just realized while typing the last sentence that perhaps that is part of what drove me to be a therapist. I like goals, including other people’s goals. A former supervisor once teased me, “Boy, you really drag people kicking and screaming toward progress, huh?” Since that conversation more than 10 years ago, I’ve learned to not own a person’s goal more than they do, and I no longer drag people “kicking and screaming” toward their goals. Nevertheless, I’m still enthusiastic about them.

The Anti-New Year’s Resolution.  It’s typical to start a goal at the beginning of some symbolic shift: the start of a year, the start of a month or week, a birthday, a holiday. This actually betrays a lack of commitment. When we want to make a change and are completely unambivalent about it, we begin right away. We decide we’re going to be a better friend now. Today. Not starting Monday. So if you really want to make progress on a goal, begin now. Is it 2:37pm on a Tuesday? Good enough. Start now.

Setting a Goal.

In setting a goal, people are always trying to do something more, or do something less…or just plain do something. Floss more, complain less, or start working out. The possibilities for those three options are truly endless.  And you probably have heard the tricks…set small goals, reward progress, write goals down, tell other people your goals…There are lots of good tips and tricks out there that have been published so I won’t pretend to be able to say it better.

I do have three things to offer regarding goal-setting:

1.) You should focus on very few goals at one time, if possible, and in some cases that means one goal. For example, if you are trying to address behavior issues with your child, you should pick one at a time, for their sake and your own. This means that toilet-training sometimes gets interrupted to help a child rein in her tempter tantrums or adjust to a new baby. Or someone who is struggling with depression might just be focusing on maintaining adequate hygeine, temporarily neglecting their relationships.

2.) Consider different levels of goal-setting. Three, specifically. The first level should be something you are pretty sure you can do, even though you aren’t doing it yet. The second level should be something you need to work for consistently and should require significant effort. The third level is your realistic ideal. Note the qualifying “realistic.” It should be within your reach, but probably not till after you’ve put in your time and effort on your Level 2. While it’s possible to achieve your level 3 goal while giving the same effort I described for the level 2 goal, often the level 3 goal is a goal to strive for in the future, and is going to require more significant effort than level 2.

In the conclusion of a study, researchers usually identify their study’s “implications for future research.” This refers to how the study might be used to inspire further research, much like a level 3 goal. As a runner, I often have three levels of goals for a race. The first goal might be to race in the same time as the last time I did that same race. The second might be to beat it by a minute or two. And the third might be to beat it by several minutes, which I might not even be able to do at the time that I’m envisioning it. It’s something to look forward to. A client of mine might set a goal to not lose their temper so much. Level 1 might be as simple as “yell less.” Level 2 might be to handle adverse situations without losing their temper for a whole week (or month, whatever the case may be). Level 3 might be to lose their temper very rarely, or never.

3.)  Self-efficacy. Do you think you struggle more than most people in setting and achieving goals? It’s possible that you have a lower self-efficacy.  You won’t find that word in the dictionary. It’s what I call “thera-speak” or what others refer to as “psychobabble.” Self-efficacy is the degree to which one believes one can change one’s own circumstances. In Who Moved My Cheese?  by Spencer Johnson, Sniff and Scurry had high self-efficacy. Contrarily, Hem and Haw had low self-efficacy. If you are a natural goal-setter, or otherwise an action-oriented person, you likely have a high self-efficacy. It helps. People with high self-efficacy have an easier time setting goals, striving for goals, and generally changing things they don’t like. People with low self-efficacy tend to blame external circumstances and feel that they can’t help their situation. They might even say, “I can’t help it” or “things don’t work out for me,” as if their choices have nothing to do with it. When obstacles inevitably begin stepping between them and their goals, they will let go of their goals, deem them “too hard.” If you suspect that your self-efficacy might be low, take heart. This can be changed. It’s not a quick fix, but you can change your habits of thinking through correction and repetition until you find yourself thinking in a more empowered way. Then there might be movement in your goals where there once was none.

The Three Measures of Progress:

There are three ways to determine whether you are gettng anywhere with your goals…

1.)     Is the problem happening less often? OR, Is the desired behavior happening more often?

2.)    Is the problem happening less intensely when it does happen? OR, Is the desired behavior happening more strongly when it happens?

3.)    Are we turning it around faster?

Quick note about “turning it around.” This is a concept that works wonders to empower. The tendency is for us to start making a mistake and then get discouraged. We give up and vow to do it right next time. It’s more powerful to turn ourselves around mid-stream and make ourselves get it right. And usually we feel more proud in doing so. My husband and I use this strategy with our children when we want them to stop a behavior and replace it with a better one. We gently press them to “turn it around,” and when they do, we warmly and  usually privately tell them “good job turning it around.” We’ve found that doing this really motivates them to change their behavior  increasingly quickly.

If you are able to answer “yes” to any of the above measures of progress, then you are gaining on your goal. To illustrate, most New Year’s Resolutions sound like this: “I’m going to floss everyday.” Well, that usually means that in about 3 weeks, you don’t floss and figure, “Well, there goes my New Year’s Resolution.” We get discouraged, and we give up. However, if you set three levels to your goal: 1. floss more, 2. floss most days in the week, and 3. floss daily, then not only have you been successful on 1 AND 2 in January, but you are also successful in at least 1 of the measures of progress: it’s happening more often. If you can add that you’ve found flossing much easier to incorporate into your routine, then you’ve also been sucessful on the second measure of progress. AND, if you refuse to let one day of not flossing get you down and you get right back to flossing the next day (or even better, get out of bed to floss as soon as you remember!), then you’ve also got your third measure of progress.

As the Holiday Season of 2011 rises into full swing, may you approach your goals with more inspiration and empowerment.